The Tuesday Composition: Composing Images with Water

Surf, Garrapata Beach
Surf, Garrapata Beach. Still images can't capture motion in water, but they can communicate the idea.

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Like mist and fog, water is a subject that deserves it’s own consideration compositionally. With the exception of very still lakes and ponds, one of the things that makes water “look like water” to us is the way that it moves. We can’t present this movement in a still image to a viewer directly. Instead, we have to translate it into a still image by making an exposure; and we use a variety of controls such as shutter speed and composition to help communicate a sense of that motion.

When we want to capture a sense of movement in water there are several things to keep in mind. Shutter speed has a significant effect-a waterfall, cascade or even surf against a coastline will have a very soft, gentle feel if we use a long exposure. Faster exposures will stop individual droplets in air, creating a greater sense of energy.  Shutter speed isn’t the only thing to keep an eye on, though. The way we compose the path of water through a scene can also affect how viewers experience water moving through a scene. Where possible, try and make it easy for the viewer’s eye to trace along the lines of the water’s path. Your images will (all other things being equal) be more effective if the visual flow of the water isn’t interrupted by things that block the view of the water. Diagonals and  S-curves can also create an additional sense of motion.

Trillum Falls I (left), Trillium Falls II (right)
Trillum Falls I (left), Trillium Falls II (right). One of the primary things that makes II a more effective image is the less interrupted flow of water through the image.

My early  Trillium Falls images demonstrate this. Taken on the same day, a few minutes apart, they both enjoy a really interesting subject and spectacular color. What makes them different is their composition. Despite the similarities, Trillium Falls II is by far the more popular of the two images; it is in fact my largest selling image to date. (Small matted prints of this image make great Christmas presents!)  Were I to edit that shoot today, I’d probably leave Trillium Falls I on the editing-room floor. That’s not that I is a bad image, it’s simply that II is more effective, and the greatest reason it’s more effective (I believe) is that the flow of water through the waterfall is less interrupted in II than in I.

Still water is an entirely different photographic animal. If you want to really emphasize the stillness of a body of water, you’ll want to avoid the lines, curves, diagnoals and other movement cues we used above. Often uninterrupted expanses of water can work well for this.

Bush Skeleton, Mono Lake, California
Bush Skeleton, Mono Lake, California. Note that we can see some of the details underneath the near part of the lake, but that the distant parts of the lake are a nearly perfect mirror.

Very smooth water surfaces can take on a mirror-like surface, which can be an interesting source of reflections. To get the best “mirror-like” reflections, you’ll want not only completely smooth water, but also a shallow viewing angle, which puts some practical constraints on your compositions. Looking straight down into a still lake you’ll typically be able to see a lot of what’s underneath. It is when you look farther out into the lake that the reflections become more dominant. It’s possible (and sometimes even interesting) to make use of this effect, to show a little bit of “what’s underneath” and ‘what’s reflected” in different parts of the same scene, as I have in Bush Skeleton. (Polarizers also have an effect on how mirror-like a water surface will appear.)

Because of its transparency, its reflectiveness and its movement, water is an interesting and unusual part of the compositional playbook.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Just my 2 ct. Personally I think, II is the weaker of the two images. I like the central stone in I very much. Gives you the impression of standing right in the water flowing around your feet.
    I don’t doubt that II is commercially more valuable. But I think, I is much more vivid, dynamic.

  2. Florian: I think, in fairness, that #1 works less well at scale because of a detail that doesn’t stand out as much here, the front leaf on that central stone (and I do like it too) is almost too perfect.

    But whichever is stronger (and we could bounce that back and forth, there is definitely a case to be made for I), I would agree with you about one thing … II is a lot more saleable. 😉

  3. Sorry, no offense meant. I’m not trying to tell you how to compose an image 😉
    You’re surely right about the leave on the central stone, this may be much more evident when viewing the image at a larger scale than the web image. I guess I just tend to like images that are not that mainstream. But then I don’t earn my money with photography. 😉
    Anyway, I really enjoy your weekly posts about composition, there’s a lot to learn for me there and I like your style of writing. Thanks very much!

  4. No worries, no offense taken at all! There is room, I think, in composition for differences of opinion, factors that are more or less important, in fact, I hope that’s a lesson that folks will take away from my composition series in general!

    I also think that it’s a continual learning process, composition. The day I think I know it all, I better have retired. 🙂 Thanks for the great comments, but no worries, I’m more than happy to take questions and criticism of any sort. 🙂

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